The illusion of productivity

Ever since we learned to write, we have documented how special we are and how we differ from animals. Imagination, morality, and culture are traits thought to only be found in humans—or at least only found in humans at a higher level of development. Another aspect that seems to be uniquely human is the need to keep busy. Most animals would be happy if their basic needs are met: food, shelter, rest. In contrast, we humans don’t like to stay idle. Even if it means falling to the illusion of productivity.

In a research study about busyness and idleness, scientists asked participants to go deliver a survey in one of two locations which they could choose from. The first option was nearby, allowing people to complete the task quicker, come back to the research center, and wait, doing nothing (the idle option); the second option was far away, with very little time to wait once they’d come back (the busy option).

Which option did people choose? Turns out, it depended on one small element: whether or not they had a justification—even if only specious—to choose the “busy” option. The participants were told they were going to get a piece of chocolate as a reward. If they were told the chocolate would be the same regardless of the option they picked, only 32% of participants chose the faraway location. But if they were told they would get milk chocolate at one location and dark chocolate at the other, 59% picked the “busy” option.

It doesn’t seem that groundbreaking at first, but the implications are profound: as humans, we will tend to do whatever it takes and to use any justification to keep busy, even if the task is meaningless. In the words of the scientists behind the study: “Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.”

The illusion of productivity

Busyness and the illusion of being productive

In her book Daring Greatly, Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, describes being “crazy busy” as a numbing strategy that allows us to avoid facing the truth of our lives. “I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.” She explains that we would rather fill the time with activities—any kind of activity—than to take the risk of finding ourselves alone with our thoughts. And our society encourages this behaviour: being idle or having too much free time is often considered a sign of laziness.

Furthermore, being “crazy busy” both justifies and reinforces living on autopilot. Instead of stopping for a few minutes to ask ourselves why we’re doing something, we keep on mindlessly churning work that may or may not lead to a goal we actually care about. It’s also one of the only socially acceptable excuses to not do the things that matter. Taking time for yourself? Feeling irritated? Forgot to do something important for a friend? You can blame it on being too busy.

Being busy does not equal being productive. When I get distracted by email notifications or when I check social media in the middle of writing an article, the interruption may give me the illusion of being busy. It will take longer to write the article because I keep breaking my state of flow. I will feel like I have worked all afternoon on something, when in reality I just didn’t manage to focus enough to get it done quicker. By feeling constantly busy, I also don’t leave room for pure creative thinking—instead, I’m filling my brain with external stimuli to give it something to do. As the study I mentioned earlier shows, it feels good. We like being busy. It’s reassuring. But it’s not necessarily right.

The illusion of productivity

Getting off the hamster wheel

Breaking our addiction to busyness does not have to be hard, but it does require a conscious change of mindset. It’s going against our deeply rooted fear of being alone with our thoughts and facing the reality of our lives. Which can be liberating, but also pretty scary.

  1. Change your perspective. First, stop saying “I don’t have time”. Instead, say “It’s not a priority.” There is enough time in a day to do the important things.
  2. Less doing, more achieving. Don’t measure productivity in terms of how many things you get done, but rather in terms of doing the things that matter. Clean up your to-do list. Shift your focus from tasks to outcomes.
  3. Do a busyness audit. Track your time and record what you spend your time on. Then, write these things down and rate them. From irrelevant or meaningless to extremely relevant and meaningful. Cut down everything you can that is not a priority.
  4. Start saying no. Don’t take stuff on just because someone asked you. Question whether this new task will translate into meaningful outcomes. It may be strange at first (you could say “not right now” instead of “no” if that’s easier) but it will help you better manage your time.
  5. Make peace with inaction. To help you get comfortable with doing nothing, schedule time with yourself for dedicated downtime. Reflect or take a short walk.

Reclaiming your time to focus on what really matters can have a big impact on where you will be one year from now. All these moments we spend on meaningless tasks to avoid being alone with ourselves can be used for thinking, meaningful work, or time spent with people that matter. It all adds up pretty quickly, and getting rid of the illusion of productivity is worth the initial discomfort of confronting our own thoughts.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

As a thank you for joining the Maker Mind family, you will receive a welcome gift: The Beginner’s Guide to Mindframing, an actionable 22-page handbook to better set and achieve your goals.